‘Jake is going to have a new mum and dad.’
‘Because, love. Just because. Because he’s a baby, a white baby. And you’re not. Apparently. Because people are horrible and because life isn’t fair, pigeon. Not fair at all.
Carol is struggling following the birth of her second son, Jake. Tony, Jake’s father has no intention of leaving his long-term partner and family and Byron, nine-year-old Leon’s father, did a runner when he was due to go to court. She has no financial support and is suffering from postnatal depression. The only emotional support she receives is from Tina, a neighbour, who also looks after the kids for her.
Sometimes, Tina’s boyfriend comes but when he sees Leon he always says, ‘Again?’ and Tina says, ‘I know’.
When Jake’s four or five months old, Leon goes to Tina’s flat to ask for money. He lies and says his mum’s asked him to go to the shop but Tina goes to Carol’s flat and sees the extent of their issues.
She walks into the sitting room and puts her hand to her mouth. She looks at how untidy Leon has been and how he has sat in front of the telly and eaten his cereal by putting his hand in the box. How he hasn’t put Jake’s nappies in the bin. How he should have opened the window like Tina does in her house and made everywhere smell of baby lotion. Leon sees what Tina sees. Why didn’t he tidy up before he asked her for any money?
She calls social services and Jake and Leon are taken into care, going together to a foster carer’s house. Leon spends his time looking out for Jake, thinking about the things that happened when he lived with his mum and hoping that his mum will get better and come back for them. Instead, Carol disappears and white baby Jake is adopted. Leon, nine-years-old with light brown skin, is left behind with Maureen, the foster carer, with little hope of anyone offering him a permanent home.
The opening chapters of My Name Is Leon are some of the most heart breaking I’ve ever read. de Waal’s nails the perspective of a nine-year-old – no mean feat – and exploits it to convey the horror of the situation Carol and her children find themselves in. Three things make this so impressive: the narrative’s factual (within its fictional world) not manipulative; adult perspectives are skilfully woven in through things Leon sees and hears but can only interpret in limited ways for himself, and it is so utterly realistic. There’s no doubt that de Waal’s experience in family law has supported her portrayal of a single parent family in crisis.
The novel goes on to follow Leon as he remains in foster care, hopes to see his mum again and attempts to find baby Jake. When a social worker brings him a BMX, he begins to visit the local allotments where he starts to hang out with Tufty. Tufty takes a shine to Leon, showing him how to create a garden much to the annoyance of local busybody Mr Devlin. de Waal uses their story to create a subplot about police treatment of black men and prejudice surrounding those whose lives appear to be lived outside of the average experience.
My Name Is Leon is a stunning novel. Heart breaking and precise, it illuminates an experience not often written about.
Thanks to Viking for the review copy.